Haslar Heritage Group

Sir William Burnett

Sir William Burnett KCB. KCH. RN
Director-General of the Medical Department of the Navy 1844.

William Burnett was born in Montrose Scotland in January 1779 and on leaving his education he was apprenticed to a Surgeon in Montrose.

At the age of 16 having joined the Royal Navy he became a Surgeons mate onboard Edgar (Captain Sir Charles Knowles).
In 1797 he transferred to Goliath (Captain Sir Charles Knowles) as the Assistant Surgeon and saw action at the Battle of Cape St Vincent (February 1797) (Admiral Nelson lost his arm at this battle).
William Burnett still onboard the Goliath (Captain Thomas Foley) he served at the Battle of the Nile August 1798. He then transferred to Defiance (Captain Phillip Durham) Burnett was involved in the main action at the Battle of Trafalgar (17 crew killed and 53 injured).

In 1810 he became Physician and Inspector of Hospitals to the Mediterranean Fleet and in the April Investigated and reported on the Mass poisoning with Mercury Vapour onboard the Triumph at Cadiz. He also invented and determined the promotion of his disinfecting fluid ‘Chloride of Zinc Solution’ for which he held lucrative patents.

In 1813 he became Medical officer in Charge of Prison Hulks at Chatham and in 1814 took private practise at Chichester.

During his career Sir William Burnett earnt the reputation of being a ‘hard-working, unimaginative and somewhat harsh man’ he was at the same time very humane in both his work and writings. His reputation was eroded in latter life by his determined promotion of his Zinc Solution.

There was a great hue and cry from the Naval Medical officers of the day when they were required to contribute from their pay towards the cost of the painting as shown.


9th June1822Member of the Victualling Board.
25th May1831KCH Knight Commander of the Royal Guelphic order, Civil Physician of the Navy.
13th April1935Physician in ordinary to King William IV.
28th January1841Inspector General of Naval Hospitals and Fleets
1st January1844Director General of the Medical Department of the Navy, the first Naval Surgeon to hold this office.
16th August1850KCB Knight Commander of the Bath
30th April1855Retired to Chichester on a pension of £1000 per annum.
16th February1861Died
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